Is the Canon 135mm f/2L Still Relevant in 2018?

Is the Canon 135mm f/2L Still Relevant in 2018?

No one can deny Canon's prowess when it comes to making lenses. Fans of the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM have long waited for an update, myself included.

To be fair, releasing a version II will not make the original any worse. In fact, the telephoto prime is superb. Despite seeing new challengers, has Canon become complacent in neglecting this lens or is it still competitive in 2018? We will look at what options are available for photographers and how do these lenses stack up against the 135mm f/2L.

I confess that I prefer using zoom lenses, especially for wedding photography when things happen at a very fast pace. For more than eight years, Canon shooters have been blessed by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and like so many of you, I bit the bullet to acquire one brand new and it has become the workhorse lens ever since.

The focal range is incredibly versatile but whenever I get enough space, I just go ahead and shoot at 200mm.

200mm doesn't always translate to tight crops in portraiture. You can still play with the composition by exaggerating negative space.

Despite one stop disadvantage when compared to the prime, the 70-200mm acquires focus quickly and accurately even in low light.

Weight Matters

My preference is to shoot dual bodies on a wedding day because the 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM pairs so well with the 70-200mm. In fact, 95 percent of my shots are covered by the 24mm to 200mm focal range and capturing them without the need to swap lenses is a major convenience factor.

Here comes my second confession: damn is this combination heavy!

Realizing that I am not getting any younger, I started to pair my 24-70mm with the legendary 135mm f/2L USM during morning preparation and later at reception. My shoulders never felt so relieved. Most importantly, I always feel that guests are looking at my white lens (it sticks out like a sore thumb as I am often dressed in black); the lightweight telephoto allows me to shoot much more discreetly.

Both prime and zoom lenses are exceptional for portraiture.

One image was taken with the 135mm f/2.0L while the other with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Can you even tell the difference?

The Imperfect, Perfect Lens

Canon has yet to update the 135mm prime despite the rumors. I have heard arguments from both sides, in particular how the lens is so sharp and quick with autofocus (both true) that there's no need to upgrade anything. Some see the 70-200mm as a replacement, or an alternative to the large aperture telephoto.

Will Canon ever update the 135mm f/2L?

Having used both side by side over the years, my opinion is that they complement each other as opposed to competing with each other.

The 135mm isn't without flaws though. The weather sealing (if any) doesn't come close to the 70-200mm so during critical assignments where durability matters, I just grab the zoom lens. Canon really designed the zoom lens to become a workhorse, there's no better adjective to describe it.

For cinematographers, the lack of image stabilization makes it difficult to shoot without using a tripod. The new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is stellar, but the focal length is just too close to the zoom's 70mm. There were instances where I wish I had image stabilization on my 135mm; seeing a money shot slightly out of focus at 100 percent crop can be frustrating.

Meanwhile, Sigma is making a splash in the telephoto arena with both the 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art and 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, but unfortunately neither primes offer image stabilization.

Perhaps the closest competitor, but despite the higher cost it also weighs 2.49 pounds.

At 3.62 pounds, this lens needs to be spectacular because it's even heavier than the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 3.28 pounds.

Here Comes the New Challenger

The recent announcement of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM is rather controversial, some even described it as an update with new paint.

Those buying the zoom for the first time will not be disappointed and no doubt Canon will sell countless copies of the version III. However, I don't see any reason to upgrade because the existing lenses are just that good.

Time will tell whether Canon made the right move. For now, my wallet is spared.
Not only is the 135mm still relevant, it is like a fine wine where it gets better with age. At 1.65 pounds, the Canon 135mm is still punching above its weight 22 years later with a trifecta of affordability, lightweight, and optical performance.

Still Hanging Onto the 135mm?

Anyone out there still hanging onto the 135mm and if yes, what will it take for you to let it go? Share your experience using the 135mm in the comments!

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43 Comments
Deleted Account's picture

Strange question. What makes it irrelevant? It can only become irrelevant when Canon releases an update.

Delixir Sorbano's picture

Yes. This.

Marius Pettersen's picture

Because some lenses from the "film era" struggle to 'cope' with high resolution sensors, but the optics in the 135L should be good enough for a while.

Sergio Tello's picture

Add a bit more sharpness and IS and I'm selling my old one.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Agreed Sergio, if Canon is willing to add IS to the new 85mm f/1.4, there is no reason why they can't do the same for the 135mm.

Christian González's picture

The 135 f/2 weighs 200 grams less than the 85 f/1.4. Why? Maybe the IS is the reponse. Is very difficult to do a real improve in the 135 without making it weigh more, what is one of its benefits. Perhaps the logic improvements will be the modern coatings and the sealing.
 

Usman Dawood's picture

Sold my canon to buy the Zeiss but I’d happily get rid of the Zeiss if they did as you suggest. Completely agree with you.

Sergio Tello's picture

I nearly did the same with the Zeiss 135mm apo (classic). That lens blew me away, but I'm not good at manual focusing.

LA M's picture

I said goodbye to mine when I switched to mirrorless systems. My very last photoshoot on 35mm format featured the 135L.

Aside from the old 35mm L it's the only lens I truly miss from Canon.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Thanks for sharing that picture Leigh. The new 35mm L is great, proving that there is still much room for improvement, even though the 135mm earned tremendous praise throughout the years.

Sergio Tello's picture

The new 35mm L is pure magic.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

A hidden gem in Canon’s lineup. Most people don’t seem to use it, but it’s a great lens to have that has a slightly different look than all the 85mm f/1.2s out there.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Indeed a gem. The longer focal length allows me to capture close ups while keeping my distance, hence my reason to use it over the 85mm.

Julien​ Bonjour's picture

I'm agree with you, I'm using the 85 1.2 but to capture close ups I will buy the 135

Jonathan Brady's picture

It was my favorite lens when I shot Canon. I initially adapted it to my Sony body when I switched But ultimately decided to give the Zeiss Batis 135 a try and when comparing them side-by-side, even though this Zeiss was a stop slower, the Canon paled in comparison! These Zeiss was just so much better despite my almost fetish-like love for the Canon. I never thought there was too awful much to be improved upon with the Canon lens but the Zeiss really made it incredibly apparent how far Canon could come with a version 2 of their 135L.

Przemek Lodej's picture

Love to see some comparisons. I keep hearing how amazing Zeiss lenses are, but their prices scare me out of my wits.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I've long since deleted my side-by-side comparison shots. I'm sure you can find some online, however.

Jonathan Brady's picture

The image that jumped out at me most was the close up of the Bride. Not for any technical reason but because I noticed her scar on her chest. My daughter also had open heart surgery and whenever I see someone with a scar it always takes me back to that day. In this case, it fast forwarded me to her wedding day and brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for including it in this set, it made my day!

Jimmy Chan's picture

I am glad that you noticed it Jonathan! Indeed she had open heart surgery at a very young age. She's living happily now, being active like everyone else. Without the scar you can't even tell. I am glad that it reminded you of your daughter's wedding, I suppose that's the power of photography. It allows us to relive those moments.

Marius Pettersen's picture

I loved mine, but I hit a phase where I wanted to dabble with something else, so I exchanged it for a the 100/2.8L macro - which is also an amazing lens. The 135L image quality is so amazing, and the low weight is also a key factor to its greatness.

Andrew Jarman's picture

Great little article on my favourite lens! I use an 80D and have used this lens from portaits to landscapes - I love the look, the contrast and sharpness is exceptional, and I don't hesitate to shoot wide open! In fact, I bought it mostly for hockey shots where it gives me an extra stop of light over the usual 70-200 (so, mostly shooting between 1000 to 2500 iso, where double that would be too noisy in my opinion on APS-C)...as mentioned, fast to focus and I'm not sure there are many Canon primes that are any sharper - I can often clearly read whats written on the puck as it flies through the air! Its a bonus that it is relatively portable, and not terribly expensive...definitely often overlooked.

Rex Larsen's picture

The headline is so strange I didn't bother to read the article.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Timely article.

I own Canon ef 50mm f/1.4 usm, EF 85mm f/1.4 and EF 135mm f/2.

I am not a pro and I barely use 135mm. Recently I bought a fujifilm x-t2 and I was thinking about selling 135mm and buying 35mm prime for fuji. I guess, the 135mm stays for now.

Martin Hull's picture

Even though I have the 50-140, I will pick the 90 over it whenever possible. Thanks to having the X-H1, I have 5-axis IS with the 90 which further benefits me. The 90 provides creamy bokeh and can focus very close which really helps for range.

I like the way the 35 f/1.4 renders images but it is a noisy lens. I still prefer it over the f/2 but that is just my preference.

Charles Diaz's picture

I have the Canon EF 135mm f/2L and absolutely love it. It will never be irrelevant in my world. Would I buy a new one with IS? Only if it renders like the old one. It is a true gem and certainly a big bang for the buck. I am no pro, but I do love this lens.

K G's picture

Ease up on the smoothing in post, she looks almost plastic

Charles Diaz's picture

First time I've been back here in a while. She is very young and works at a spa. She has micro bladed eyebrows and impeccable makeup. I didn't smooth or take away anything. At the time, I didn't know how. If you zoom in, you'll see freckles and all. Other than that, the topic is about Canon's 135mm f/2L, not my post processing... which is done to my taste and not to satisfy you or anyone else. I'm attaching another one for you taken with the Canon R, RF 85mm f/1.2 @f/1.8 ISO 100 and a 6 stop ND filter, Flashpoint AD 200 in a 38" para pop. Again, no smoothing at all. Just a very young 18 year old. As you can see, I didn't ask for, or need, your CC. The girl in the blue dress was shot at f/1.2 Have a good day.

Kerem Oktay Bilgici's picture

And here I was considering trading my 70-200 f4 L IS with this one. Maybe I should.

Will Gavillan's picture

Would be good if they could work on the heavy CA

cory parker's picture

If they released a 135 with IS I would preorder immediately. I use it as much as I can on wedding days, but usually the versatility on the 70-200 wins. It truly shines on engagement sessions where I can do crazy things like a 20 image brenizer with it.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

"To be fair, releasing a version II will not make the original any worse." I don't want to sound like an ass but this pretty much answers the big question.
I personally have trouble understanding the whole chase after the latest updates in gear. Something either works or not for a given photographer. Can a lens from 1996 be improved optically today? Of course. Are there other, more recent lenses that can outperform it optically? Surely there are. Does every photographer need those improvements? I'm pretty sure quite a few out there don't even care. So for them the lens is still relevant.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Because a 135 f2 has a slightly different look than a zoom set at 135 at 2.8 enough to make a difference sometimes

Petr Svitil's picture

I'm curious to see a comparison cof the 135mm L to Signa's 105mm. I think i might prefer the slightly wider but fater Sigma. On the other hand, it is 2x as heavy which could be a deal breaker in the long run

Edward Lai's picture

Well IMHO Nikon isn't updating their 135mm which has worse sharpness, CA etc (yes yes DC is unique blah I know that) so maybe there is less incentive for canon to update? (Canon only updated their plastic mount 50mm shortly after yongnuo copied it to up their game) The only threat is nikon and sigma's 105 1.4 and sigma's 1.8 and I guess canon is incappable to match it/exceed it or it does not view it a threat so there is no "response". In fact canon needs to maintain the same sharpness and add IS for it to blow the rest out of the water if you're a practical person rather than the "mtf for buck" type. Otherwise from my perspective I'd go for the samyang 135mm (equal if not better optical performance for less money and af isn't too critical for my work) or the sigma 1.8 (better bokeh, sharper than zeiss and canon whilst having af) and the canon's in no mans land but a couple of years (say 5 yrs) ago b4 yhese alternatives are there canon's valid.

Indy Thomas's picture

The 135 f2 is an evergreen classic.
Any update will only add a touch of refinement that users will scarcely notice, much like the vIII 70-200

Caleb Kerr's picture

I have it, but really only use it when the wider aperture is paramount. I love my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II a lot, and generally reach for that. If I didn't already own it, would I buy it? Probably not, but for the couple hundred bucks I'd get for selling it, I'd rather hang onto it for when it helps out in a pinch.

Przemek Lodej's picture

Yea it's very relevant and I have no intention of giving it up any time soon. Fantastic lens. I have the 85mm f/1.2L II and the 70-200mm f/2.8L I, but the 135mm fits between these two perfectly. I don't always want to use the behemoth 85mm so....yes it's still in my bag.

Korey Napier's picture

I fell in love with this lens when I shot Canon. It's always been such an incredible value as well. You can find them under $1,000. I shoot Fuji now and opted for the 85mm focal length (56mm 1.2), but I've always wanted to try their 90mm f/2 because I loved the Canon 135 so much. It's a special lens for sure!

Fritz Asuro's picture

A zoom lens will never replace primes as they have different uses. Also, sorry for my harsh words, the title is stupid. How would a lens be irrelevant, especially in that caliber?

Kenneth Rose's picture

Well I sold my 70-200 because images from the 135 f/2 just look nicer (and it is lighter and it focusses faster and it is black, so less noticeable). I would really like to switch from using Canon DSLRs to a smaller lighter outfit. I already switched from 1-series bodies at 1.5kg to "prosumer" bodies at half that weight, but a Fuji XT-something based outfit would be smaller and lighter still. The only reason I have not yet made the change is that 135 f/2 lens.

Christian González's picture

My favorite lens! It's weight is what makes it so cool
 

George Beinhorn's picture

I let mine go and am switching back from Fuji to Canon to use this lens and a few others in Canon's EF line. Other, newer lenses may be "sharper," but so what? None of them can match the magic of the Canon 135, its ability to delve into a subject's humanity. Strange magic.

donald nealious's picture

My 135mm was too long for our small camera room, so I traded it for a 100mm 2.8L IS. I'm looking to photograph horses but don't want to lug my 70-200 2.8 Mk II around. So I'm thinking about a used 135. But I'm getting sjakey in my old age, so I need the IS.